Creating a Digital Panorama

Overview

A panorama is a large composite picture created by stitching together a series of overlapping smaller photos. This is done to capture a broader aspect ratio and higher resolution of a scene than a single picture is capable, even when it is captured with a wide angle lens. The best panoramas are created from two or more photos with overlapping vertical or horizontal regions across the entire scene. When the photos are combined, they recreate a full 90°, 180°, 360° (and anywhere in between) of a given scene.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze (Florence, Italy) panorama
Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze, May 27, 2007, Florence, Italy

Introduction

The quality, popularity and relative simplicity of digital cameras and photo processing software have made creating digital panoramas much easier today than just a few years ago. Creating a decent panorama using a digital camera is greatly simplified, as in most cases, by having the proper equipment and workflow.

As with single-image digital photography — and photography, in general — adhering to the fundamentals by controlling focus & lighting is a must. The omelette is only as good as the ingredients that go in it. If you take a crappy set of photos, you will end up with a crappy panorama. The more control you have and exert over the process of capturing the individual photos, the better the final panorama will be when you will later stitch them together. For this reason, point-and-shoot digital cameras are great for their convenience but not ideal for capturing panoramas. You can use point-and-shoot cameras to capture a panorama but you won’t get anywhere near the results possible with a basic digital SLR which provide more control for capturing a consistent set of images across the entire scene.

Other must-have equipment, in my opinion, is a good tripod. Camera shake will kill a panorama. Tripods also help you control the level of the camera as you pan it across the scene capturing the individual photos. Imagine taking 24 pictures (at 15° intervals) to capture a full 360° scene without using a tripod. Could you keep the camera steady? Would the pictures be anywhere near level from start to finish? Probably not. A tripod is your friend when it comes to panoramas. Invest in one, borrow one or rent one. You won’t be sorry.

Once you have captured a solid photo set, creating the composite becomes an exercise in matching the overlapping regions and correcting for lens artifacts & color shifts then transforming (or warping) the images so they can be joined into the final panorama. By investing more in equipment specifically designed for capturing panoramas, one can completely eliminate such corrections and transformations from the workflow. However, such equipment can be very expensive. The good news is there are several relatively inexpensive computer software programs that automate the image corrections and will even automatically stitch the images together for you.

Pictured above is the most recent panorama I created. It is of Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze in Florence, Italy taken on May 27, 2007. The final, high-resolution image has a resolution of 7097×3624 pixels. My current camera is a Nikon D200 which has a maximum resolution of 3872×2592. So how did I create a single image 1.8x wider and 1.4x taller than my camera can capture? By taking 7 separate, overlapping pictures and stitching them together.

In the following article, I will take you through the process, equipment and software I used to create the picture above from start to finish. Let’s get started.

Taking the Pictures

In this section we will cover the steps to set up your equipment and the process of capturing the pictures that will form the final panorama. This section assumes you understand the basic principles of digital photography and know how to make intermediate to advanced changes to your camera controls and settings.

Here is the list of equipment I recommend (and use personally) for this part of the process.

Equipment:

Any digital SLR and tripod will do. My particular tripod rig is designed for a lifetime of travel photography with lightweight, carbon-fiber legs and a compact ball-head base. The mounting plate is a custom L-brace for mating a specific camera model to an Arca-Swiss style ball-head and makes switching between landscape and portrait modes when using a tripod quick and easy. Let me repeat: You do not need to spend anywhere near $500-$900 on a tripod rig to capture great panoramas. Just make sure whatever you use provides a solid, stable foundation for your camera and lens. The only other requirement is that your tripod provide level left-to-right panning across a minimum range of 180°.

I first survey the scene through the camera viewfinder to judge camera height and lens zoom. I also use the Expodisc to set a custom white balance for the current lighting. This is a completely optional step and can be done on the computer later on. I mention it here for completeness and because I prefer doing things that can be done in the field, in the field. Using my estimates, I set the tripod up at the proper height, connect the remote release cable, then mount my camera to the tripod in portrait (taller than wide) mode. The remote release cable is an often-overlooked but inexpensive (if you don’t buy the Nikon-branded version) convenience for shooting with a tripod. It insures against camera shake introduced when pushing the camera-mounted shutter release button. It also makes rapid fire picture taking possible which is important in a dynamic environment (e.g., people moving around).

With the camera on the tripod, I pan from the far left to the far right of the scene while looking through the viewfinder. This helps me gauge how level the pictures will be during capture. I make adjustments to the pitch and yaw (technical terms for forward/backward & sideways lean) and check again. This process repeats until I am satisfied with the result.

The time making the adjustments above is well spent, let me assure you. The software I use to process the photos and stitch them together is very good at correcting for non-level images and white balance shifts but it’s still a good idea to get as many things as close to correct as possible while in the field. It will save you time later on. A couple spirit levels (one for the tripod base, one for the camera) may save you some time getting things level. Really Right Stuff carries both. I don’t use either.

Having established a fairly level and stable base for capturing pictures across the scene, I then move on to dialing-in zoom and exposure settings. The easiest, repeatable way I have of doing this is as follows:

  1. Pan the camera to point at the primary subject in the scene. Usually it is straight ahead.
  2. Select the lowest ISO setting your camera offers: 400 is good, 200 is great, 100 is even better.
  3. Set the exposure mode to aperture priority (or ‘A’). We want to control & eliminate depth-of-field.
  4. Set the aperture (or f-stop) to f/22. We want everything in front of the camera to be razor sharp while taking the series of photos.
  5. Close or turn off the flash.
  6. Take a test picture. Use the remote release cable if you have one. Make sure the camera locks focus.
  7. Note the shutter speed the camera used for the aperture you selected in step 3.
  8. Now switch the exposure mode to manual (or ‘M’). We don’t want anything changing on us while taking the series of photos.
  9. Dial-in the aperture from step 3 and the shutter speed from step 5.
  10. Switch the lens into manual focus mode. It is important that the lens obtain focus in step 6 and isn’t refocused while taking the series of pictures. This is usually done via a switch on the side of the lens. Again, we don’t want anything to change while taking the series of photos.

You’re now ready to take your pictures. I like to start at the far left extreme of the scene and pan right snapping a picture every 15° to 20°. This method results in significant overlap which gives the software more information when comparing and stitching the images together to create the final panorama. Neither the amount of distance between each successive image nor the number of images taken needs to be precise. If you decide to shoot in landscape (wider than tall) mode you need fewer images left-to-right. If you decide to do a panorama covering less than or greater than 180° you may need fewer or more pictures. Sticking with the 15° to 20° guideline will consistently get you solid results.

For the “Santa Croce” panorama, I took 7 pictures in portrait mode. Here are the actual 7 pictures dumped straight from the camera then resized to fit this page.

Image 1 of 7 Image 2 of 7 Image 3 of 7 Image 4 of 7 Image 5 of 7 Image 6 of 7 Image 7 of 7
The 7 Original Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze Images Before Stitching

Now comes the fun part. Once you have the images on your computer, it is time to combine them into the final panorama.

Processing the Digital Images

In this section we will manipulate the pictures using the computer and custom software to stitch the images into the final panorama. It is assumed you know how to get the images from your camera to your computer and have a good understanding of digital darkroom techniques.

Equipment:

As far as digital panorama equipment goes, The Panorama Factory (TPF) by Smoky City Design is one of the biggest time-savers I have found. Its simple, intuitive wizards and powerful advanced processing and editing capabilities make it the most important tool after my camera and tripod for capturing panoramas. In fact, TPF can even salvage a very good panorama from pictures taken using a point-and-shoot camera without a tripod! If you don’t want to learn a complicated interface or turn a bunch of knobs just to create a basic panorama, TPF is for you. Even if you do like turning knobs and fine-tuning, TPF is an excellent tool for you as well.

Here is the workflow after you have started The Panorama Factory:

  1. Import your photos. You may have saved them in JPG format which TPF imports easily. If you use your camera’s raw format (which I do) you should first convert the images to 8-bit TIFF format which TPF imports as well.
  2. Select the stitching mode. Try automatic first. If you don’t get good results, start over and choose semi-automatic. If you still don’t get good results, you may want to try a better set of photos. I am assuming semi-automatic for the rest of this how-to.
  3. Describe your camera. Leave the automatic selection checked unless the software has trouble. In that case, choose the settings that match your equipment.
  4. Control the image quality. I leave these settings on their recommended defaults. If the final image is too dark or light, you can come back to this step and adjust the brightness accordingly.
  5. Choose the output format. I choose image file only, partial panorama, cylindrical projection. If you do a full 360° panorama you want to select the 360 degree panorama option. Only choose spherical projection if you are panning vertically during your image captures as well. That is beyond the scope of this how-to.
  6. Place stitching points. This is where you align objects in each pair of images (1 & 2, 2 & 3, 3 & 4, and so on) to make sure the individual images overlap correctly during stitching. It can be the most time-consuming of the nine step workflow but the automatic mode (in step 2) will do this for you which is why I recommend you give it a shot before choosing semi-automatic mode. Expect to spend 2-5 minutes on the first pair of images then a minute on each successive pair assuming you followed the 15° to 20° overlap suggested during the image capture process.
  7. Preview your panorama. This is one of the most exciting stages. You get to see a draft of your final image in all its glory.
  8. Create your panorama. Choose to prepare the image for Internet display & maximum size to maintain as much resolution as possible. The computer will begin churning out your final panorama once you click next.
  9. Save your panorama. You’re finished! TPF will present your final stitched and optimized panorama with the sides squared to preserve maximum horizontal and vertical resolution. Click save final image, choose a format (JPG) and pat yourself on the back.
  10. Save your project. Clicking next one last time will prompt you to save your project for future adjustments (e.g., to switch from automatic to semi-automatic mode or vice versa). Then the wizard will exit.

I have also created a PDF showing screenshots of steps 1 through 9 [532KB]. Each thumbnail is linked to a full-size image. (download)

You can now use the digital darkroom software of your choice to further enhance the composite image. This is the opportunity to crop, adjust levels, change tone curves, add saturation, sharpen, etc. Your final image is probably pretty large so you should plan for editing operations to take significantly longer to complete.

You want to print your panorama? There are professional online photo printing services that support the print formats and dimensions you are going to need. My printing service of choice is EZ Prints. They offer prints 6″ or 12″ in height and as wide as you need to go. Imagine that 12″x48″ masterpiece above your fireplace. Now go make it a reality.

Summary

Hopefully you have found this how-to insightful and useful even if you never intend to make your own panoramas. Sometimes knowing the process it takes to do something gives you more appreciation for the final result.

The equipment (either hardware or software) is not cheap but it is worth the price if you are planning to create more than a handful of high-quality panoramas that you wish to print or post to the Web. I have been to many galleries, public markets and shops where rudimentary panoramas are sold for $50-$500 each. By investing the time & money into creating your own panoramas you not only get the satisfaction of capturing your personal memories, which you can then share with your family and friends, but you may also save money in the long run. Most of all, you will have a lot of fun.

If you want to get started creating panoramas and have more questions, leave a comment and I will do my best to get you an answer. I would love to hear about (and see) any panoramas you take after reading this overview. Drop a comment if you want to share. I will continue adding new panoramas I take as well.

I’m in the Pacific Northwest, Chicago and Dayton, Ohio regularly so contact me via my blog if you want to commission a panorama and I will see what I can do

6 Replies to “Creating a Digital Panorama”

  1. Pingback: lesia.com
  2. Just read your 2007 article on using Panorama Factory to stitch photos into a panorama. Is Panorama Factory still your choice to process photos into a panorama? I have a Mac Book and for the last year have been using Panorama Factory 5. It has been a nightmare. I upgraded to 5 from 3 and it has never worked. I am looking for a new program. It has to be easy. I am 77 and have a slow learn curve. Thanks for the advice. Yours truly, Don Clark

    1. Donald,

      I would recommend using something like Autopano Giga which can be migrated with your Adobe Lightroom and PS. It is also compatible with Mac and the interface is user friendly.

      Adam Shehadeh
      Panoramic Essentials LLC
      Support

  3. Usually I do not learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it!
    Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite great article.

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